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The Lego Batman Movie

Batman and Robin is bullshit. I don’t want to spend too much time on this point because of course you know it’s bullshit. Everybody knows that it’s bullshit. The width and depth and layers of its bullshit have been documented exhaustively over the past twenty years.

For example, it’s widely known that Batman and Robin leaned heavily on the Adam West TV portrayal from the ’60s. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. That particular TV show is still a widely beloved portrayal of the character and a significant factor in getting him into the wider cultural zeitgeist beyond comic books. The problem is that the filmmakers of Batman and Robin didn’t use the Adam West TV show as an inspiration — they used it as an excuse.

Five minutes of watching a film so defiantly void of brains, guts, heart, humor, pride, good taste, or common sense, and it’s patently obvious that the filmmakers wanted nothing more than to make hundreds of millions of dollars for zero effort. “So what if it has a contrived paper-thin plot, goofy action scenes, broad acting, and groan-inducing puns?” asked the filmmakers. “So did the Adam West show and you liked that, didn’t you? Now sit down, shut up, watch the pretty pictures, and buy the toys.”

Batman and Robin was an insult. From start to finish, it showed immense disrespect for the characters and the fans who loved them through so many decades.

So Batman took a cinematic hiatus for nearly a decade, resurfacing with the landmark Christopher Nolan trilogy. And while those darker and more grounded movies did give us a lot of great moments, it also gave us the Christian Bale growl that became an instant punchline. Then came Ben Affleck’s rendition, a hopeless cynic who fucking branded like cattle what criminals he didn’t straight-up murder. It was a significant reason why Batman v Superman was commonly seen as “too dark”. Clearly, the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.

So here we are with The Lego Batman Movie, a spin-off of Will Arnett’s portrayal from the surprise world-conquering phenomenon of The Lego Movie. It’s the first Batman film to get both a theatrical release and a PG rating since Mask of the Phantasm in 1993 (and even that one was pretty dark in places). It’s also quite notably the first cinematic appearance of Robin since Joel Schumacher took the franchise down in flames (no, The Dark Knight Rises does not count and you know it). More than that, the trailers showed us a film that was quite overtly a light and comical take on the Caped Crusader, with more than a little inspiration taken from the old West era.

The big question here: Could the film have fun with the character and laugh at Batman’s expense, but without abusing the franchise or insulting the fanbase like B&R did?

Right off the bat top, the film has an immediate advantage in that we are never — at any time, in any way, or to any extent — expected to take any of this seriously. The filmmakers aren’t out to reinvent Batman for a new generation, create a new sprawling continuity, one-up those who took on the character previously, or leave an inspiration for future portrayals of the property; any or all of which might have been key objectives for anyone else who ever got to make a Batman movie.

This is because (much like its progenitor Lego Movie), we know from start to finish and even before we buy our ticket that this is a movie about toys. This is literally a movie about pieces of plastic made for the express purpose of playing. Thus we’re free to sit back and relive the experience of playing around with Batman toys when we were kids. (Come on, tell me you never pretended you were Batman even once.)

Furthermore, the combination of CGI and childlike imagination means that all the excess inherent in Batman’s character can be taken to the most awesome, outrageous, hilarious lengths possible. This is a Batman who can have the biggest Batcave, the most extravagant Wayne Manor, hundreds of the most tricked-out and bizarre vehicles, and fight crime through the most sprawling Gotham City. Batman has always been paradoxically more powerful than any mere mortal should be, and taking the contrast to such absurd extremes opens up so many possibilities for creative set pieces and jokes.

Sure enough, the visuals are all absolutely beautiful in how detailed and superbly crafted they are and on such an epic scale. The 3D effects are spellbinding, further adding to the “Lego diorama” effect of the film. What’s even better are all the in-jokes tucked away into every corner. And I’m not just talking about the nods to the Adam West show, though every single one of them got a cheer out of me. (The Bat-Shark Repellent totally steals a scene, I’m not even kidding.) No, the filmmakers were able to cram in so many background details across so many different films, TV shows, and comic books. Nothing was off-limits here, and it’s glorious to watch.

Which brings us to some crucial strengths of The Lego Movie, all of which are visible here. A highlight is in how the presentation is childlike without ever becoming juvenile, and that’s plainly visible in everything from the jokes to the sound effects (“pew pew!”). Another hallmark was the boundless sense of creativity and the joy of watching so many different properties clash together. In The Lego Movie, it was mostly about different heroes all coming together. But in this film, it’s the villains.

Yes, Batman has what is indisputably the greatest Rogues Gallery in comics history, and dozens of classic Batman villains were tapped for this picture. In addition to classic standbys like the Riddler, Mister Freeze, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, we’ve got C-listers like Killer Moth, Egghead, Condiment King, and Kite-Man stealing scenes. Crazy Quilt and Zebra Man get shout-outs, for God’s sake. And I swear I didn’t make any of those up. But as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve got classic villains from a whole shit-ton of other disparate franchises streaming in through a genuinely clever conceit, and I don’t dare spoil which ones really do show up.

However, The Lego Movie was primarily a film about the virtue of creativity, and secondarily a film about coming together and working as a team. In this movie, while both themes are still definitely present, the priorities are reversed.

Batman is of course the center of this. Batman has always (to varying degrees) been a character who trusts very few people, prefers to work alone, equips himself with fancy suits and toys, lives in luxury as a billionaire playboy, and has no problem bending the rules to suit his own brand of justice. All of this is exaggerated to an outrageous extent, giving us a Batman who gradually has to face the truth that he’s not in fact the smartest, most powerful, most handsome, most all-around awesome demigod who ever lived.

It’s an angle that makes for some wonderful comedy, a natural means of introducing a “friendship is magic” theme, and a genuinely funny parody of the Dark Knight. But it comes with a significant problem, and it becomes impossible to ignore after one character says “you can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.” That anyone said that isn’t a problem. That anyone had to say that to freaking Batman is absolutely a problem.

Batman may be a brooding loner, but never to such an egregious degree that he only ever cared about himself. He cares about Alfred, his surrogate father and most stalwart ally. He cares about the people of Gotham, to the point where he’d go out every night to make sure no child ever grows up an orphan the way he did. Hell, Batman has to care about his parents at the very least or his entire origin story falls apart. Granted, a Batman who only cares about anything to the extent that it bolsters his ego makes for good comedy, but it doesn’t make for good drama and it doesn’t make for a worthy hero.

This a recurring pattern with most of the major characters: One perfectly valid aspect of a character is blown so far out of proportion that everything else about the character is ignored. It makes for good kid-friendly comedy, but it doesn’t work as an interesting or faithful adaptation of the character. Another fine example is Joker, here voiced in a surprisingly decent turn by Zach Galifianakis. This Joker is all about the strange symbiotic relationship between him and Batman. Joker calls it an honor to be Batman’s greatest villain, and his ego wouldn’t allow anyone else to imply otherwise.

Again, it works as a neat way to reinforce Batman’s need for some kind of personal connection, and it makes for some funny stuff in Galifianakis’ hands. But there’s sadly not very much about what really makes the Joker such an iconic villain: His playful brand of chaos. Joker is all about giving into entropy and spreading insanity as a preferable alternative to the gray and dreary world we live in. Joker is a character dedicated to bringing color and creativity to the world in the most twisted ways possible, and you’d think that might have fit a movie about Legos like hand in glove. Such a waste.

That said, the approach works surprisingly well for Robin, here played by Michael Cera opposite his old “Arrested Development” costar. The character is relentlessly optimistic, happy to be adopted, and thrilled to be joining Batman on an adventure. Thus he serves to alternately stoke Batman’s ego when he isn’t driving the Dark Knight crazy, serving as a nice foil for our title character. Plus, Robin has absolutely zero shame, which makes for a lot of great humor with regards to his famously ridiculous costume. Oh, and young Dick Grayson is already orphaned at the start of the film, so we’re spared the origin story of watching his parents die.

(Side note: Also, the film spares us yet another instance of watching the Wayne parents getting shot. For which I’m dearly thankful.)

But there’s one particular case in point that’s easily the worst of the bunch: Commissioner James Gordon, here voiced by Hector Elizondo. This is portrayal is a blithering idiot whose first reaction to everything is to turn on the Bat Signal. Treating Gordon this way is very much like turning Dr. John Watson into a bumbling oaf: It’s a tempting means to make the hero look that much better, but the gains are insignificant next to the damage done to a perfectly capable character. Jim Gordon may not be a superhero, but he is nonetheless a hero and a role model, capable of holding the city together through legitimate means in a way that Bruce Wayne and Batman never could.

Mercifully, this awful take on Gordon is tossed aside quickly in favor of the film’s strongest character: Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson.

(Side note: Yes, the Gordons are both voiced by and animated as people of color. An interesting choice, and an admirable one.)

Barbara comes forward to present some especially biting commentary on Batman, noting that Gotham is somehow still a hellhole and so many supervillains are still running free in spite of everything Batman’s done over however many years. Plus, she’s quick to point out that Batman is way out of control, bound by nothing remotely resembling legality or ethics. But she never once tries to lead a witch hunt against Batman. Quite the contrary, she’s quite earnest in her attempts to fold Batman into law enforcement so the police and the vigilante can work together more effectively (there’s that teamwork theme again). Barbara is easily the most nuanced character in this movie, which makes her an effective “straight man” for Batman to act against. It also continues the Lego films’ penchant for solid female leads (see also: Wyldstyle), which is definitely another plus.

Those characters aside, we’ve got a deep and impressive bench of supporting and cameo players. There’s Billy Dee Williams, Conan O’Brien, Eddie Izzard, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Riki Lindhome, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill (back to voice Superman and Green Lantern respectively), Zoe Kravitz, Seth Green, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate… the list goes on and on. Siri — fucking Siri! — has a prominent supporting role and a voice acting credit, for Christ’s sake. All of this adds to the unpredictable variety and madcap fun of the movie.

Alas, that fun has some notable pacing issues. There are so many times — especially during the third act — when the film will take us through a breathtaking action scene and end up with a great head of steam, only to slam right into a brick wall, coming to a dead halt for several minutes while Batman is spoon-fed some lesson about family. That said, at least this film’s climax continues the Lego Movie tradition of giving us jaw-dropping plot turns with diabolically clever solutions.

For miscellaneous notes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the ’80s references. “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson — of all things — should’ve gotten a supporting credit for how often it shows up. We also get a shiny happy pop song over the end credits, which tries and spectacularly fails to recapture the old “Everything is Awesome!!!” magic.

If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh on The Lego Batman Movie, that’s probably because I’m taking the film more seriously than was ever intended. This was clearly built to be a Lego Movie first and a Batman Movie second, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Especially not when the film is packed to the rafters with so many great DC shout-outs, on top of the delightful humor and the dazzling visuals.

It’s fun, it’s creative, and it’s whip-smart, even if it lags in places. If this is what the Lego Movie brand is all about, keep ’em coming.

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